Investment in digital transformation will reap a rich dividend


As learning experiences go, the past year has been nothing if not intense. Not that the learning has been confined to students locked down in their bedrooms: universities, too, have been on something of a crash course in digital instruction. And their grades have been distinctly mixed.

Those that tried to solve the Covid conundrum by simply broadcasting last year’s lectures live over the web soon hit issues with bandwidth, access and time zones. Recording lectures was found to be better, in many cases, because students could download the file over a slower-speed connection and view and review them at their own convenience.

But I believe that mass reliance on the traditional 50-minute lecture format will soon be a thing of the past. Universities’ experiences over recent months suggest that, on learning outcome and student experience grounds, classes might evolve to meet modern needs by being broken up into smaller “lecturettes” that match the attention span of learners and review key concepts and processes. These could be combined with discussion sessions to explore key topics; pre- and post-learning activities to prime students for learning and ensure understanding; greater in-lecture feedback to maintain engagement and test learning, such as polls and quizzes; and a learning management system capable of monitoring progress to enable adaptive and personalised learning.

The current cottage industry of module teaching – usually with a sole academic being responsible for the design, development, delivery and assessment of learning – does not scale into the new world. The intense planning, preparation and support activities required for large-scale online learning and teaching will need a team-based approach, with senior academics working alongside more junior teaching and educational technology staff. Such an approach will utilise available skills in a superior academic and cost-effective way.

Over time, as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and easier to deploy, it is possible to see how many routine tasks – such as administrative queries and processes, assessment and grading, and even the explanation of well-defined curriculum areas – may be offloaded to digital teaching assistants.

In recent reports by the UK sector-wide Learning and Teaching Reimagined (LTR) project, we suggest some more specifics. For example, universities could automate student recruitment and admissions by using linked customer relationship management (CRM) and student records systems, while replacing student support staff hours with AI-based chatbots to handle common front-line queries.

In addition, expensive campus facilities could be replaced by online equivalents that can scale according to demand by being deployed on cloud computing platforms. Physical lecture theatres, for example, are seldom used for more than 30 hours a week and are often less than three-quarters full.

Extra income from physical lectures could be generated by extending the audience of existing modules and courses to include online participants from anywhere in the world, through live broadcast or recorded classes. Teaching staff, module content and brand accreditation are valuable and expensive assets, so it makes sense to use digital technology to expand the university’s footprint in the virtual world.

Moreover, access to online learning could be extended to those who do not wish or are unable to attend campus. Indeed, with government support, digital provision could be the key to realising the much-discussed expansion of higher education into the realm of lifelong learning. But merely offering existing modules will not cut it for many lifelong learners. They need overarching interfaces to frameworks that organise and monitor their progress, and bite-sized learning and assessment strategies that reflect their busy, multifaceted lives.

When it comes to digital technology, I’ve met senior leaders with very different attitudes. At one end of the spectrum are those who see it as a problem and an expense. At the other are those who embrace it as an opportunity and investment in transforming their organisations and improving outcomes while contributing to the financial bottom line.

There is no getting away from the fact that the digital projects that will have the biggest impacts are going to be complex, risky and expensive. To realise its full potential, therefore, “big digital” needs strategic oversight from the senior leadership team, as well as a continuity of funding and implementation resources. The challenge of acquiring sufficient digital dexterity for the modern world extends to all groups, from teaching, research and support staff to senior management and governors.

Universities that stubbornly remain analogue-only may yet survive – particularly if they have high prestige. But they are likely to be managing decline. Institutions that have the foresight and confidence to take a strategic approach to digital transformation, by contrast, are likely to reap a considerable dividend.

Author Bio: David Maguire is interim Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dundee and chair of Jisc, the UK education and technology not-for-profit